Halloween may come once a year, but Vancouver is gothic and full of ghost stories year-round. Or at least that’s what two walking companies, Forbidden Vancouver (as well as their sister company Vancouver Mysteries) and Ghostly Vancouver Tours set out to show their guests. The former currently boasts SFU alumnus Lani Russwurm as their in-house historian (he also shares Vancouver’s history on his blog Vancouver Past Tense).
For Will Woods, the founder and Chief Storyteller of Forbidden Vancouver, historical research is an important part of the experience. It’s also “a theatre piece as much as a walking tour,” Woods said.
“[We] provide unique channels into discovering Vancouver’s history [and make it accessible] for people who maybe don’t want to read about history,” Woods said.
The company storytellers are professional actors, in character and in costume. The idea is that they recreate the moments featured in the various tours they offer, including the Lost Souls of Gastown — a tour that runs specially for Halloween.
“People love these gothic tales,” Woods said. “They provide a counterpoint to our city’s narrative.”
It’s true that going back in Vancouver’s history, not everything is yoga classes and lattes. When asked what his favourite story to tell on tour is, Woods laughed and said, “I could talk to you for three hours about Vancouver history without pausing for breath.” You don’t have to pick a favourite either, but here are some of the ghosts and mysteries of Vancouver.
The Old Spaghetti Factory (Gastown)
Since opening in 1970, the Old Spaghetti Factory in Gastown has accumulated quite the cast of paranormal patrons. One ghost, the tram conductor, came to the restaurant with Trolley 53. It is one of the first electric cars purchased by the BC Electric Company, which is now parked inside the restaurant.
Your waiter might also know the Little Red Man (also known as Looky-loo), a small, mischievous ginger whose favourite prank is to sneak into the women’s bathroom (nobody’s quite sure how he came about haunting the Factory).
Another mystery ghost is a little boy whose name is Edward (according to a psychic). His favourite activities include being chased by staff after closing hours, bending the cutlery, and placing chairs on the table overnight.
Less of a troublemaker, but equally creepy is an unnamed little girl who sits by the front window, holding a single balloon. Though she’s been spotted frequently, she only spoke once: to tell someone that she was looking for her mother. She disappeared before the manager could come.
Some theories say the ghosts may not be haunting the restaurant itself, but the building: the W.H. Malkin Co. Ltd. grocery store that was built in 1912, and owned by a former Vancouver mayor.
The Island of Dead Men (Stanley Park)
The ghosts of Deadman’s Island span centuries of Canadian history. The Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) people gave it the name “Island of Dead Men.” This contested island was a battleground in a bloody war between North and Southern tribes which culminated in a grisly hostage exchange. For 200 women, elderly, and child hostages, the Northern tribe sacrificed 200 of its best, most selfless, and loving warriors, all of whom were slaughtered. In her book Legends of Vancouver, Pauline Johnson says that where the fallen soldiers’ blood spilled, flaming flowers burst from the ground.
The island, considered a site of dark magic, was abandoned by the living. Squamish people took to placing the remains of their deceased in cedar boxes and lodging them in the trees. When Europeans came to the island in 1860 (and renamed it Deadman’s Island), they were disturbed by the disintegrating boxes of bones and had them removed — though the bodies of railway workers, merchants, and victims of the Great Fire of 1886 continued to be deposited on the island. When disease struck in 1888, Deadman’s Island was used as a quarantine site for the doomed victims of smallpox, many of whom never returned to shore.
Over the years, the remains left on the island and the people who died there were displaced, unceremoniously buried, and forgotten. Perhaps this is why ghosts have manifested themselves when the island saw confrontations and peaceful sit-ins when the federal government sold the island to an American logger. Or even why ghosts heckled the navy men and women who spent time on the island since it became a naval base in 1942.
When it was originally built in 1915, the Waterfront Station was the Canadian Pacific Railway’s terminus in the west. With the amount of people who have bustled through the station, and the amount of time that’s gone by, it’s no surprise that the station supposedly boasts several ghosts. Over the years, security guards have spotted women in flapper dresses dancing to the music of the 1920s, a trio of older women waiting for a train that isn’t on the schedule, and furniture strewn about by a poltergeist.
The most graphic of the Waterfront ghosts is Hub Clark, a former brakeman. On a rainy day in 1928, Clark slipped while repairing tracks just outside the station. Nobody realized that he had been knocked unconscious until a passenger train came through the station, decapitating him. Since then, Clark has been seen wandering around Waterfront and Gastown, lantern in hand, without his head.
The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
In its peak days, the Canadian Pacific Railway built lavish hotels across Canada, including Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta and Québec’s Chateau Frontenac. The Vancouver equivalent, Hotel Vancouver on Georgia Street, boasts a ghost of its own: the Lady in Red. Just this May, an amateur photographer snapped a shot of her peering through a window . . . on a floor that was off-limits to guests and staff during renovations.
As glamorous in the afterlife as she was alive, many believe the Lady to be the ghost of Jennie Pearl Cox, a Vancouver socialite who, like all high society at the time, paid regular visits to the Fairmont and its Pacific Ballroom until losing her life in a car crash. The Fairmont claims that Pearl, as her friends knew her, haunts the hotel not because it is where she met her demise, but because it is where she was at her happiest — which would also explain why she spends eternity wearing her favourite red gown.
Described as a harmless ghost, the hotel staff have named a cocktail after Pearl. Nonetheless, the Lady has confused guests by lounging in their rooms, and even scared an X-Files cameraman who refused to come back until the production team left the hotel.